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Timetabling Autonomy?

Timetabling Autonomy?
By Jan Fortune-Wood

“Autonomy” is one of the buzzwords in our household.

Making sure that everyone is living and learning what they want to be living and learning, and following their own interests, is the foundation of our home education. Helping children to get what they want in life is enormously liberating. Living by consent is a constant adventure in learning.

Like other adventures, this one takes a lot of problem solving. We work from home. Then there are four children, each with a catalog of interests, activities, projects, and social engagements. Of course, there is also the usual domestic round of meals, shopping, laundry, and cleaning. And last April we moved into a 200-year-old house in need of renovating.

The house has been a major time user. It is three stories, built of granite stone with 27-inch thick walls, and boat-shaped at one end because it was built to be a warehouse (which later became an undertaker’s and woodworking shop). It had previously been divided up, and in eight months we’ve built the kitchen from scratch, put in stairs, knocked down walls, built new walls, put in new floors, put in wood burning stoves, rebuilt two rooms, renovated one of the bathrooms, and decorated everywhere. 

For the first four months, we had no kitchen. When we got the kitchen, we had no stairs to it. So cooking and eating involved going outside of the house, down the hill, and around to the other side of the house and in another door – no mean feat considering that it rains a lot here in North Wales!

Heating and a proper hot water system finally arrived in early November, shortly after the first winter storms had brought our first two-day power cut. Christmas was the deadline to have my older daughter’s bedroom built so that she would no longer be camping between her sister’s room and the living room (when it wasn’t being remodeled to fit in the stairs).

Everything has been a learning experience – from sawing through joists to negotiating with suppliers – and we’ve all been involved in various ways. Yet, by autumn, it was becoming obvious to us all that this project, as much as it mattered to us all, was eating up so much time that other preferences were slipping away from us. What about all the art and craft activities we normally enjoy? How were we going to fit in biology, philosophy, reading together, jewelry making, swimming, and a hundred other things?

Autonomy and living by consent is about getting what we each want. One of the things that I sometimes hear parents saying is that there are times when the good of the group (in this case the family) comes above the good of the individual. We don’t share this dichotomy. We are the group and, if an individual in this family group isn’t getting what he or she wants, the group is suffering. The group’s good may be more than the sum of the good of each individual, but it can’t exist without it. So the solution was not to put all these other preferences on hold while we got on with the house.

And that left us with a logistical problem. Autonomy and living by consent may be about getting what we each want, but it is not about how we get it. Most often this means that our life is very unstructured and flexible, constantly responsive to changes and nuances as we grow and learn together. Yet, faced with a logistical problem, we took what, for our family, was an unusual approach. We sat down and wrote a list of all the things people wanted to get out of a normal (as approximately as that word can ever be used) week. The list looked overwhelming at first, so next we color coded it so that we could see who would be involved in each activity – five of us like working on art projects together, three people are currently designing a teen website, two of us were reading Artemis Fowl together and so on. It was starting to look a bit more achievable now that it wasn’t just a list of a thousand and one things to be done by last Tuesday.

Our next step was to look at time – all of it. We put every time of the day when some of us are awake and active into the melting pot. With all of this information, we then made a huge grid – times, people, activities, colors. It looks, to the unsuspecting casual observer, like a timetable, but it’s not.

A timetable is about restrictions and control and mechanistic management of humans, but our grid is about possibilities and opportunities and responding to interest. In four months, no actual lived week has looked like the paper version and it is being fine tuned and revised on an hour-to-hour basis.

But for all that, it has been useful. It’s helped to remind us of each individual’s general preferences. And, although we use it with liberal license, it has enabled us to keep an eye on activities that were otherwise beginning to slip away from us amidst the pressures of house renovating and making a living.

How? Well, autonomy is the right of self-government and free will. Education is the process by which we develop intellectual potential and foster the growth of knowledge. Education relies on a rational development of conjecture and refutation. Autonomous education is simply that process by which knowledge grows because of the intrinsic motivation of the individual.

In fact, the core to understanding autonomous education is in understanding the fundamental and unshakable role of intrinsic motivation. Autonomous education has little to do with the method or content of learning and is rather focused on who is in control of the learning. Autonomous education can’t simply be defined by looking at what a child does.

A structured exam course may be an example of autonomous learning or of enforced teaching; similarly, a child playing hours of video games may be an example of autonomous learning or of someone with no other resources or input at their disposal. At issue is not what is superficially being done, but whether the situation emanates from the child’s intrinsic motivation and is the child’s preferred problem-solving context.

What our “not a timetable” helped us to do was to find a way of inputting all the intrinsic motivations in our family over a particular period to solve a logistical problem. If we stuck to it rigidly, even for a day, it wouldn’t be fulfilling that purpose because the individuals involved would be losing their control and flexibility and power to respond to unpredictable learning opportunities.

However, having the grid around (even in the background) has meant that, despite this being a very busy period, five of us have started a wonderful drawing course together, four of us have tried out a drama class, four of us regularly go swimming, two of us are learning yoga, and our eldest son has embarked on a philosophy course with a distance learning tutor. These are just a few of the things that might otherwise have slipped away from us in the urgency to get this house really habitable while still bringing in some income.

Moreover, the “not a timetable” has helped us to secure gaps in all the activity. So much of our deep learning goes on in the gaps. This is learning that isn’t generally visible, at least for long periods of gestation, and certainly isn’t conventionally measurable. This is the learning that needs space to watch movies and favorite TV shows, to puzzle over computer games, to sit in a tree doodling or seeming to do nothing, to wander round medieval castles watching the cloudscapes and the sea go by, to roast chestnuts and gaze at the soft colors of the smudged green and brown landscape outside our windows, to curl up with a novel or a sketch pad or nothing and dream. During a busy time, the “not a timetable” was a reminder not to try to load ourselves down, but to leave room for things to simply happen, or not.

The “not a timetable” has also acted as a kind of marker. Children who live and learn autonomously are not the same as neglected children. Helping children to get what they want is a highly engaged form of parenting and education. The child has control, but she is not raising herself or abandoned to get on with her life or education. Parents are the trusted advisers and essential sources of support, information, criticism, moral theories and so much more. When the pressure is on and when we live with children who are so skilled at managing their own learning for significant periods, the line between supporting an autonomous child and neglect can be a thin one, but a very detrimental one to cross. Having a guideline, even a very flexible and changeable one, helped us to stay on the right side of that line. It assisted us in checking on how much support (of the kind our children welcome and want) we were delivering.

Autonomy can’t be timetabled. Intrinsically motivated learning has to be just that – it needs space and flexibility. It also benefits from a responsive environment. What our “not a timetable” has helped us to do is to keep an eye on that environment.

I’m not sure how long our “not a timetable” will survive, even in its constantly changing state. When the house is finished it may not be so pressing to have this kind of marker and we’ve lived without any such marker for most of the previous 16 years. But one thing that this exercise has highlighted is that following autonomy has little or nothing to do with the external form of what we do at a given time and everything to do with who controls it and how the intrinsic motivation of each individual is served.

Jan Fortune lives and works in the UK and has written many articles for Life Learning Magazine, including this one, which was published in 2003. She is currently a novelist, poet, and editor with independence as a recurring motif in her thinking. She home educated her four highly independent children (now independent young people); did a PhD in feminist theology at a time when it was an emerging mode of thought; runs independent creative writing courses, and has moved through major institutions - educational, spiritual, and domestic - to work towards her own independence, including running an independent press. She has published books on home education and parenting, focussing on living with children in ways that respect their autonomy, as well as novels and poetry collections.

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